No Honour among worthies
It seems that you are nobody in UK society unless you have turned down an award from the Queen.
It seems that you are nobody in UK society these days, unless you have turned down an Honour from the Queen.
The current row over how and to whom knighthoods and lesser honours are handed out seems irrelevant to anything that matters in the real world. Yet it does offer an insight into the depth of the crisis of authority facing the British elite as they enter 2004.
Leaked documents have revealed a longstanding secret file of those who quietly said no to official honours in the past. And since the black poet Benjamin Zephaniah announced that he had turned down an OBE, others have been clamouring to tell us that they too refused one, or that they accepted one but are now thinking of giving it back, in protest against the Empire, racism, the war in Iraq or, in at least one case, the victory parade for England’s rugby union team. It is almost as if we were witnessing the formation of a sort of alternative elite of establishment refuseniks.
Normally, those seeking to claw their way up the greasy pole of British politics or culture would be desperate to find their name on the New Year’s honours list. No doubt many still are, and others are simply pleased to get a letter from the Queen; see Messrs Beckham and Wilkinson for example. Yet a growing number now appear to take an alternative view – that bending the knee to receive a bauble of the British Empire from the hereditary monarch could be more of a burden than an asset in the modern world.
The traditional symbols of the British ruling class seem increasingly empty of meaning. When the comedian Spike Milligan was awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) some years ago, he joked that he would rather have been made a Commander of Milton Keynes, since at least that really existed. Now a similar attitude is more widespread among people who would not know a joke if it bit them. Even some of those who do accept honours from Her Majesty seem to realise that such things are best done with a fashionably ironic, ‘knowing’ twist these days; witness Mick Jagger turning up at the Palace in trainers.
The honours system has been further shaken of late by detailed revelations of how the secret committees draw up lists of those deemed worthy (or not) of a gong. Regardless of the details, the fact that such sensitive leaks can suddenly occur after all these years is itself revealing of the state of disarray within the corridors of power. It confirms the view that senior civil servants who could once have been relied upon to keep state secrets, while they waited their turn for their own inevitable honour, can no longer be trusted in the same way. The traditional ethos of duty and loyalty to Her Majesty’s Government seems as outdated as those Empire medals.
The Hutton Inquiry has, of course, already exposed the every-man-for-himself attitude now taking hold within Whitehall, with almost everybody from ministers downwards prepared to blab and backstab rather than take responsibility for anything. Each time some previously unpublicised practise is leaked in this way, it strengthens the many conspiracy theories about the operations of the ‘secret state’. Ironically, however, the culture of leaking and whistle-blowing suggests the opposite. There seems no way the establishment could keep any important conspiracy a secret for more than a fortnight these days.
The row about the honours system also confirms the uncertainty and moral cowardice of the contemporary political elite. The most striking revelation has not been the way that pinstriped jobsworths get knighthoods for doing nothing (what else is new?), or that celebrities are now being courted to give the system a more ‘relevant’, reality-TV feel.
Instead, much attention has focused on the fact that leading Oxford scientist Colin Blakemore, head of the Medical Research Council (MRC), has apparently been denied the normal knighthood because of his ‘controversial’ work involving animal research. The influence of the animal rights lobby and Prince Charles have been blamed for this sleight. But it seems more an illustration of the spinelessness of government, that it should refuse to honour somebody who has made a genuine contribution to improving the human lot, for fear of offending somebody with the ear of the media. The actual content of the award is deemed less important than the image it projects, by a government that is less worried about doing the right thing than about attracting the wrong sort of publicity.
The attempt to turn the honours system into an instrument of populist politics, to help the isolated government make a connection with people, has already been evident in a stunt like the creation of ‘people’s peers’, and now the policy of giving honours to some with more radical, anti-establishment reputations. The question some of us might ask about the recent refuseniks is not why did they turn them down, but what have they been up to that merits such a reward from the political elite in the first place?
At the end of a year in which it won a high-profile war, Tony Blair’s government now finds itself on the rack over everything from university top-up fees to the suicide of a civil servant, from the prime minister’s Christmas card to the granting of gongs. The notion that capturing Saddam Hussein would solve Blair’s problems proved short-lived, as the prime minister was quickly plunged into yet another embarrassing row over the existence or otherwise of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.
Such a crisis of internal authority might have followed a military defeat in the past, but never a walkover victory. As we have argued before on spiked, these issues – some major, some minor, some miniscule in real importance – all take on a greater significance because of the background of cynicism about politics and mistrust of government that shapes every debate today.
It is remarkable that the political elite should appear so insecure, vulnerable and uncertain at a time when there is effectively no political opposition to put it under pressure. Certainly there is a lot of disaffection around. But it tends to take the form of an anti-political cop-out – ‘Not in my name’ – rather than a coherent political alternative. Today’s loud honours list refuseniks are pretty typical of the way that making a gesture now substitutes for taking a stand.
By all means tell the Queen what to do with her leftover imperial Christmas tree decorations. Just don’t pretend that by announcing it to the world you are doing anything more meaningful than the protestors who swore they would assert their right to moon at President George W Bush during his recent visit.
So, welcome to British politics 2004, a world where perhaps the only things more pathetic than the government are its opponents. How we set about creating an effective intellectual critique of this mess, as the foundation for a political alternative, will be a central concern of spiked and its writers over the coming year. That would be something worth celebrating.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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